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The ‘New Paradigm’: Old Errors, Same Tactics

By Fr. Timothy Vaverek (articles - email) | May 01, 2018

Cardinal Cupich recently gave a talk in Cambridge in which he, like Cardinal Marx and other revisionist prelates and theologians, promotes a “New Paradigm” for understanding Catholic morality. The trouble is, the paradigm isn’t true, and it’s not even new.

The “New Paradigm” that Cardinal Cupich presents is a rehash of discredited theories from the 1960s and 1970s held together by a false notion of conscience, allegedly supported by Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. This approach claims that actions contrary to the Gospel and to human dignity are sometimes morally permissible. Once the paradigm is scrutinized, however, it collapses and its many inaccurate descriptions of the Catholic faith are exposed. The revisionists’ response to such critiques is to reassert their position and to resort to condescension, name calling, and pressure tactics. We have seen all this before, and the knowledge of past debates can help us understand what is unfolding in the Church today.

The revisionists’ paradigm has survived for half a century despite ecclesial opposition. Earlier versions of the New Paradigm dominated theological faculties and seminaries for a generation after Vatican II, in some places never completely falling out of favor. Its influence on moral theology was evident during the 1960s in the works of Josef Fuchs, Bernard Haring, and Charles Curran. So the paradigm was already in use when Cardinal Cupich began his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in the early 1970s (Fuchs, in fact, was teaching there).

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to admit having studied at the Gregorian as well (I arrived six years after the Cardinal left). While many seminarians in those days embraced the paradigm and retained it later as priests, theologians, and bishops, there was a marginalized minority who objected to it, recognizing that it was problematic and contrary to the Gospel. Providentially, I was among the latter. That experience enabled us to learn the paradigm from its leading proponents. As a result, we know its premises, structure, rhetorical strategies, and popular appeal—just as well as we know its failings. We are also aware of the way revisionists tend to resort to power and personal accusations (such as rigidity, nostalgia, and psychic insecurities) in order to ostracize critics or break down resistance.

In Opposition to the Church

The theoretical foundations and practical conclusions proposed by the first generation of theologians using the paradigm were highly controversial. By the mid-1980s, many of those claims were officially declared incompatible with the faith. Among the numerous ecclesial documents related to that struggle, the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor arguably provides the most prominent and comprehensive refutation of the paradigm’s theoretical and practical errors in the field of moral theology.

During this struggle, open profession of the paradigm could have proved damaging to the “career path” of rising theologians and ecclesiastics, so proponents were generally discreet in their public statements. This did not, of course, alter their beliefs or keep tenured faculty and established ecclesiastics from supporting such positions. As a result, the paradigm never completely went away. In recent years, the paradigm has resurfaced as the “New Paradigm.” It has largely shed itself of explicit reference to its discredited theoretical foundations. Yet it continues to promote many of its old conclusions, most notably the claim that conscience can exempt a Christian from the Church’s evangelical teaching and discipline.

The revisionists accomplished this transformation by a simple and elegant maneuver. Instead of providing an analysis of personhood and human action which comprehensively disproves the “outdated” paradigm(s) that they wish to replace and then presenting a rigorous demonstration of the truth of their own novel claims, they cleverly cut the Gordian knot of detailed theological analysis by shifting to a practical approach that reduces morality to casuistry (i.e., the concrete application of norms). The key to the maneuver is to declare (without any proof) that the Church’s teachings are ideals. Considered as abstractions, these teachings obviously could not explicitly address every circumstance in life. Personal conscience, rooted in the concrete reality of daily existence, is then invoked as the means to apply the abstract teachings to particular cases and, voilà, the moral action suited to the situation emerges for each individual. The Church cannot gainsay this judgment because her role is to present principles, not conclusions.

This newest reincarnation of the paradigm has a number of practical advantages: it doesn’t have to expose its deepest theoretical foundations to scrutiny; it leaves people free to follow their consciences without submitting to ecclesial teaching or correction; it permits the teaching of Christ and the Church to be affirmed in theory while being set aside in practice; and it enables opponents to be denounced as unrealistic, heartless legalists who prefer fear and justice over love and mercy. It is easy to see how this approach might prove attractive to clergy and laity alike—and useful for revisionists in dealing with anyone who disagrees.

Conscience Distorted

Clearly, the current “New Paradigm” depends entirely on its claims regarding the abstract nature of Christian moral teaching and the role of conscience. Both are wrong, as even a brief analysis of its treatment of conscience will show. Aware that the paradigm’s view of conscience is pivotal, Cardinal Cupich and others have tried to bolster it by using a “proof text” from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes: “conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary… [where] he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (GS 16). Their appeal fails for three reasons.

First, the context is against them. GS is addressed to the entire world and paragraph 16 is part of a discussion on the dignity of the human person. Thus, the purpose of GS 16 is to affirm the reality of conscience as related to God and common to every human being, not to provide an exhaustive analysis of its structure and operation or to describe the unique characteristics of a Christian conscience.

Second, the fact that GS 16 speaks of God’s voice echoing (resonat) means the text does not support Cardinal Cupich and others who refer to conscience as “the voice of God.” We know from experience that an echo can distort a voice. This can happen in conscience for many reasons, innocent or culpable, and can leave the conscience mistaken or blind, as GS 16 itself affirms. Third, and most important for our present discussion, it is not true that a person is absolutely alone with God in conscience—certainly no Christian is. Jesus, the Word Incarnate, abides in us by the gift of the Holy Spirit. But, where Jesus and the Holy Spirit are, there is the body and bride of Christ, the Church. GS 16 does not mention these Christological, pnuematological, and ecclesiological dimensions because of its narrow purpose.

For a Christian, then, conscience is no longer simply the natural faculty briefly described in GS 16 which imperfectly echoes the voice of God. It has been transformed by the grace of the indwelling Trinity into a real, but imperfect, participation in the life of God, Christ, and the Church. This means it is a con-scientia in both etymological senses: a personal “consciousness” (or “awareness”) and a communal “knowing with” the Trinity, Jesus, and the Church—encompassing the entire communion of saints. This personal and communal conscience is the one St. Thomas More invoked when he died rather than take an oath that had been declared morally acceptable by all but one of the English bishops.

For a believing Catholic, this dual experience of conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit to a personal awareness of fallibility and to the consequent need to be part of the communal embrace and practice of the Gospel proclaimed infallibly by Christ in the Church. That is why Cardinal Newman, who famously called conscience “the aboriginal vicar of Christ” also adamantly affirmed it must be docile to the living voice of the Church, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” Notably, Cardinal Cupich and other revisionists cite Newman without mentioning this latter point.

Thus, it is a grave error to view conscience as the means of applying allegedly abstract moral norms to concrete situations. Conscience is, rather, a means of drawing the concrete wisdom and love of the Trinity, manifest in Jesus of Nazareth and lived within the Church, more perfectly into the daily life of the Christian. The moral norms of the Gospel are not idealistic intellectual statements that we apply; they are practical manifestations of the Word of God, revealing the personal and communal reality of who Christ is and what it means to share his life.

Apostolic Witness

This explains why the Apostles insisted that in receiving the Gospel a Christian must put on the mind of Christ and act as a member of his body, sharing his divine life and holiness. It is why they required ecclesial discipline, even expulsion when necessary, for those who violated the Gospel delivered once and for all within the life of the Church (Gal 1:8; I Jn 2:24; II Jn 8-11; Jude 3, 22, 23). In so doing, they handed on a practice established by Christ (Mt 18:15-17). It is crucial to note that Jesus and the Apostles did not authorize the Church to make such corrections based on a person’s innocence or guilt. That would be impossible, since the Church cannot know the state of anyone’s conscience. Instead, they commanded the Church to judge based on the fact of whether a person had departed from the belief and behavior which is ours in Christ and whether that person subsequently accepted or refused correction.

The early Church followed this practice, accompanying Christians who objectively failed to live the Gospel by pointing out the error of their actions or beliefs and helping them lay those aside. When the matter was grave, however, Holy Communion was withheld, whether they were innocent or culpable, until they rejected the sin, fear, or error that led to their failure.

Having misconceived the nature of conscience, the New Paradigm naturally inculcates a distorted view that ignores or misrepresents the Church’s integral and authoritative role in conscience and discipline. Similarly, it is unable to envision that the critics who affirm what it denies are intelligent, well-grounded, and pastorally minded. This disposes otherwise charitable prelates and theologians, like Cardinal Cupich, to treat critics with condescension and baseless accusations, claiming that the critics are not able to understand the New Paradigm, are insecure or fearful in the face of change and freedom, fail to recognize that people can err innocently or through the pressures of life, wish to replace conscience rather than guide it, prefer to treat Christians like children, think they have all answers, are Pharisees, etc., etc.

Fifty years of repetition cannot make their accusations true any more than it can remove the fundamental errors of their not-so-new paradigm. But their consistency does enable us to know precisely what we are dealing with and what to expect if their popularity and power continue to grow. We can only pray that some bishops find an effective way to accept marginalization and to stand against this false paradigm in order to offer an authentic apostolic witness. For the proclamation and living of the Gospel is the only remedy we have.


Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek, STD has been a priest of the Diocese of Austin since 1985 and serves parishes in Gatesville and Hamilton. His studies focused on Ecclesiology and Apostolic Ministry, including Newman’s understanding of Conscience in relation to the Church.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 06, 2018 10:00 PM ET USA

    Do we even have souls anymore? This all sounds like saying the means justify the ends. Receiving HC validly makes two claims:(1)by approaching one (re)states commitment to Christ & His Catholic Church AND (2)by receiving one accepts Christ & His Grace. Non-Catholic reception ignores the first part. Christ & His Church are supposed to be one. If the marriage is solid why not RCIA for the spouse to become Catholic? Well, yeah, I know, it's complicated. Tell it to Jesus hanging on the Cross.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - May. 03, 2018 3:18 PM ET USA

    The elephant in the New Paradigm room? “Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (Amoris Laetitia, 303).

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - May. 02, 2018 10:31 AM ET USA

    In the current climate in the Church, Fr. Vavarek is exceedingly brave to write an article like this. Priests in some dioceses - Cardinal Cupich's Chicago archdiocese springs to mind - would be severely punished for speaking the truth in this way. In some respects, the "New Paradigm" may actually have a long history. To many of us, there are elements of it that sound a lot like what Eve was told in the Garden of Eden. God bless Fr. Vavarek.

  • Posted by: feedback - May. 02, 2018 10:17 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this valuable essay. Some clerics are firmly stuck in the 1960-70's with their theological "new" ideas, frequently combined with their left-leaning political involvement, and their taste for "new" church music, "new" art, and "new" 1960-70's architecture. The results of their activism are overall counter productive.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 01, 2018 8:57 PM ET USA

    Succinct answer to the Pope's and his men's and women's well-practiced belittlements, condescensions, and proffering of spurious logic and analysis. Frequent recourse to these types of essays is critical in the fight to continue to embrace the rule of faith and morality that can save us from casuistry, a false irenicism, and subjugation to the modern "consensus" disciplinarian. Since Fr. Vaverak is not directly referencing the Pope in his essay, we hope that he remains secure in his ministry.

  • Posted by: miked.doc6394 - May. 01, 2018 4:56 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this much needed and thorough explanation. "Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." -Matthew 5:19